Parenting in Poverty: Coping with Shame and Denial in ‘The Florida Project’ and ‘Shoplifters’

Shame is a perpetual feeling often associated with poverty. In a world where independent capitalist endeavours are so highly praised and defining of one’s worth, those lacking in such ventures are often left feeling worthless. Those who ask for financial help are called ‘freeloaders’ or ‘lazy.’ Even though it’s a system built to keep those at the bottom remaining at the bottom, it leaves those in need feeling humiliated and ashamed when they cannot securely provide for themselves. This feeling of remorse is worsened even more when you consider the responsibility of taking care of a child. Not only is your already-stretched budget now splitting at the seams to cover your beloved offspring, but you’re responsible for explaining to a child as to why exactly they’ve inherited such a bad lot in life. There’s a crushing and frustrating guilt that comes with knowing your child is not being provided with the best possible start in life—regardless of how hard you try.

Both Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017) and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (2018) offer up insight into the struggle of trying to raise a child in poverty. How wanting to promise your child the world conflicts with the unlikelihood of being able to follow through on such promises. Having to face the reality of doing things for money that one would never want their child to do, just to keep your head above water. All while trying to disguise your child from the harsh realities of life. It’s a dizzying and exasperating tight-walk of morality and being realistic about the world—one that sometimes requires delusional wishful thinking just to keep you and your child sane.

The art of dress-up games and illusion are used as a coping mechanism for struggling young mother Halley in The Florida Project. Halley and her 6-year-old daughter, Moonee, reside in the blazing purple Magic Castle Motel just outside Disney World, selling discount perfume outside luxury hotels to make rent. Halley knows that the motel isn’t the best spot to raise Moonee, but it’s all she’s got. An uneducated and unemployed single mother doesn’t have too many options, especially when residing in Kissimmee—an area just outside Orlando notorious for its sky-high house prices and for having a poverty rate of 24.4% (10% above the national average).

So, Halley acts as an idealistic fairy godmother. She tries to mask the reality of Moonee’s shaky upbringing in bubble-gum fun and delight. She dresses their $33-a-night room in bright pinks and let’s Moonee binge-watch whatever she wants on TV while eating takeout pizza. Events that one would normally shield their child from seeing—like street fights and houses on fire—are dazzling pieces of entertainment for Halley and Moonee. If she can’t shield Moonee from seeing these things, she might as well make it fun. When she reluctantly makes Moonee clean up her spit off a fellow motel-tenant’s car, she still wants it to be a game. “It’s summer, let them have a good time” is her response when she’s asked why Moonee is enjoying what should be a punishing chore.

Letting Moonee ‘have a good time’ pretty much sums up Halley’s attitude towards parenting. It’s a short-term solution and one that won’t last the realities of life —much like her motel residency—but it makes the most of a lousy situation. When Halley gains a few hundred bucks for hocking some stolen Disney World wristbands, she doesn’t save it or stash it away for rent. She splurges it. She runs with Moonee to the nearest craft store and stocks up on pink, glittery junk—anything to make Moonee temporarily ecstatic with joy.

The truth is, Halley knows her scenario isn’t going to change anytime soon even with an influx of a few hundred dollars. She knows she’s stuck in a vicious cycle of relying on temporary badly paid work and living in an area with astronomical rent rates. Thus, Halley focuses all her energy on ensuring her and Moonee are having all the fun they can to distract themselves from their crappy and unfair reality. When Halley must resort to ‘turning tricks’ in their motel room to pay their rent, she tucks Moonee away in the bath with the radio blasting. Her mother’s favourite music and an abundance of bubbles acts as a protective barrier against the unfortunate truth on the other side of the door. It may not be the most morally sound way to raise a child, or one that will last the test of time as Moonee grows more aware of the world, but it’s certainly a quickfire way to upkeep her daughter’s oblivious happiness—no matter how brief and delicate.

And the delusion and fantasy certainly works. Moonee’s childhood is filled with happiness and adventure. To her, the world is her oyster. She doesn’t yet understand money or its necessity. She understands the fact she doesn’t have any money, but to her this is something she still sees as a game. “This is where we get free ice cream!” she exclaims as she teaches Jancey how to beg for change. When she gets free pancakes, she demands extra maple syrup and delights in pushing to the front of the queue to get her pick of groceries from the food donation van. She’s living in a bubble where things are free without realising the short-lived nature of it. Most of Moonee’s happiness teeters on the fact she is caught up in a wonderful state of imagination and positivity that ignores the harsh realism of the world; a mindset unique to only a child.

Lacking the funds for expensive toys, Moonee spends her days with her friends roaming the great outdoors. They play in cow fields, they wander through bright, abandoned condos, imagining their future if they could ever afford a house. Left to ramble without supervision, it’s no wonder Moonee’s boredom leads her to setting objects on fire for fun. Living just 6 miles outside of Disney World, they live in the Magic Kingdom’s shadow where everything clings to the commercial appeal of the much-loved park, but noone has enough money to ever enter the beloved paradise. However, Moonee and her friends still have a never-ending optimism about the Disney-diluted wasteland where they live. Everything is theirs and everything is a thrilling expedition.

It’s not that Moonee doesn’t see hardship or the realities of living in a motel; she does, she’s just so accustomed to it that it doesn’t shock her. As she grows up, she may begin to realise the adverse situation she lives in but for now she’s oblivious to the unfairness of it. It’s an accepted reality for her – it’s almost a game. When giving Jancey a tour of the motel she lists off some of the place’s most notable traits, an elevator reeking of urine, a tenant who is consistently arrested, and an alcoholic neighbour. To Moonee—as for many children living in poverty —such misfortunes are all just facts of life. Facts that unfortunately can’t always be smoothed over by free ice cream and extra maple syrup– no matter how hard Halley may try.

Halley is understandably defensive of her parenting habits, after all she has no evident family or support system, nobody ever taught her how to single-handedly raise a child. She’s no stranger to criticism regarding her parenting—“Look at you and your child! No wonder you’re in this situation”—is a line thrown in her face. When a friend accusingly questions Halley’s sex work, Halley lashes out, violently attacking her. Halley knows what she’s doing might not be the best for Moonee in the long term, but it’s a guilt she buries deep behind a mask of confidence and indifference to the world. A shame that derives from the knowledge that her offerings for Moonee are ultimately limited and ones that will most likely lead Moonee to an adulthood of financial burden and discontent.

Shoplifters is a film that also tackles the shame and lack of self-esteem that comes with raising a child in poverty. The guilt that comes with lacking enough funds to create security and safety for your family; the worry that you’re missing out on the ability to provide your offspring with something much better. The grievance in that no matter how much you try, it’s never enough to get you out of your unfavourable situation.

Shoplifters follows the story of a group of low-income individuals living together on the outskirts of Tokyo. Although not related by blood, they operate as a family. Couple Osamu and Nobuyo as the father and mother, Hatsue the ‘granny’ who provides the family with her dead husband’s pension, Aki the ‘younger sister’ twenty-something who works at a peep show, and Shota. The group take in young Yuri, a little girl who has been left out in the cold by her abusive parents, getting more than they bargained for when they realise that her departure has made national news.

Although Osamu and Nobuyo each have their share of work and doing odd-jobs for money, their income never stretches enough to keep them afloat in Japan’s harsh economy. Even with Grandma’s pension and Aki’s peep show wages, the clan still don’t pull enough to survive. Osamu here is forced to shoplift food to provide for his family.

Osamu is an individual who struggles with his own self-worth. He acts simultaneously as the father and jester of the family. He’s constantly grinning, cracking jokes, and trying to spread laughter throughout the clan—reassuring everyone that their lifestyle is just fine. Shoplifting is not something he is proud of, but it’s something he excuses by turning it into a sort of bonding game for him and Shota.

The pair go out and work as a team in grocery stores, sending signals on when it’s safe to shoplift and even fist-bumping for good luck beforehand. This acts as a delusional facade that masks the seriousness of their actions. The bonding ‘father and son’ nature of it normalises the situation and distracts from the serious risk of being arrested. It must be okay for Shota to shoplift, his ‘father’ is telling him to do so. It’s a way for Osamu to guide Shota away from feeling guilty about stealing and avoids awkward questions about the morality of what they’re doing.

This bonding time between the pair also acts as great reassurance for Osamu that he is doing something good for his family. He is providing them with food and teaching Shota a skill he has mastered, even if deep down he knows it’s not right. When questioned by the police as to why he didn’t feel guilty about teaching his children to steal, he sadly replies, “I don’t know anything else to teach them”. With such limited money and limited resources, Osamu is strapped for ways to teach his children how to provide for themselves. It’s a god-awful trap of wanting the world for your children but being stuck in a dire situation where every other option of prospering or providing for yourself involves requiring money first.

The children of the family are visibly emotionally scarred from a life in poverty. Yuri is overly-reserved and shy, and all-together not 100% loyal to the family when she decides to go back to her abusive parents. She’s young, impressionable, and due to her abusive past has warped ideas on how to receive love. Shota is extremely mature for his age and likes to isolate himself. He sleeps in a small cupboard away from the rest of the family and refuses to call Osamu ‘dad.’ His deliberate act of getting caught can even be seen as out of spite for his family’s way of living. Nevertheless, these traits are all down to living in demanding situations and living a life where your guard always has to be up, even from childhood.

Much like Halley, Osamu and Nobuyo rely on secrecy and lying to their children to keep their offspring happy and to ensure their family unit stays afloat. They hide details about their past criminality and lie to their children about stealing. They give them heavily biased codes on how stealing can be moral. Telling Shota, “Stealing is okay from the store—nobody owns it yet,” which works fine for Shota until it’s time to teach Yuri the same code. Following along and teaching someone else are two very different things, and Shota starts to question his parents’ rules. Shota’s last straw is when Osamu breaks his own ‘nobody owns it yet’ code by breaking into a car for a handbag.  

The children have been coerced into a one-way-road of life without even realising it. Osamu’s and Nobuyo’s living situations have always forced them to think of the short-term – they don’t have the luxury of being able to plan for the future. Perhaps why they don’t have the space to consider what sort of criminal path shoplifting will set their children on, or how harmful a lack of education can be in contemporary Japan. Shota tells Yuri “Only kids who can’t study at home go to school” something he is reciting from his parents’ mouths – a sad insight into how children from low-income homes grow up with much less opportunities. Osamu and Nobuyo’s coercive behaviour is not one out of spite or malice, it is merely one out of necessity. It’s a reasoning based on denial and needing to lie to make life a bit more bearable – there is little other way they can survive without it.   

Ultimately—without realising they are doing so—Osamu and Nobuyo use the notion of family as a security blanket to cover their problems. The two use ‘family’ as an excuse for crime. Stealing for them is okay, and it’s not selfish, it’s for their family. Shota learns from his adoptive parents that stealing is fine, and he internalises it as normal. He doesn’t know any different. The unreliable and dangerous nature of their income doesn’t matter as they have each other and they’ll always be there to protect each other. Except for when they can’t, and ultimately, they are found out and separated for their crimes.

It’s hard to truly question the actions of the family because such acts come from such desperation in such a harsh economic climate. Both parents have had jobs, yet still they can’t seem to keep afloat in such a whirlwind economy. Thus, their petty crime seems all the harder to crucify. They have good intentions, they take in Yuri off the streets and treat her as one of their own even though they can barely feed themselves, and they’re endlessly loving of each other and their children. Alike Halley – they’re stuck in a bleak situation which forces them to do questionable things just to get by.

When raising a child in poverty, you have to deal with a crushing weight of pressure and stress. It’s a life full of sacrifice, social exclusion, and scarcity—all things you would want to shield your child from ever knowing. It’s a living underpinned with a constant stirring worry about the life you have set out for your children and a helpless feeling of entrapment when there are little other means to provide for your child. Worries that, in these films are dealt with by delusion, denial, and self-deception. Halley puts on a carefree and joyous attitude to highlight the fun in Moonee’s life and bury the unfavourable realities. While Osamu and Nobuyo emphasise family and love in their life, all is okay because they love each other, right? They also feed their children morally-tinted views on crime. Such ways may not completely absolve the problem of having little to no money—or completely rid the parents of worry—but in the short-term they aid in the everyday battle with living in poverty.

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